By Amy D'Orazio, author of A Folly of Youth
In 1826, eighteen-year-old Caroline Elkington, the daughter of a Birmingham attorney, went off to London to enjoy a Season and, hopefully, secure a husband. Happily, she met with quick success; Dr Copeland, a young surgeon, was immediately smitten by her and proposed. Alas, by the time the Season had ended, Dr Copeland regretted his offer—he had discovered his betrothed had no money—and broke things off. What’s a girl to do?
Miss Elkington did what an increasing number of jilted brides did in the 19th century; she sued her beau for breach of promise. Breach of promise was a legal action that brokenhearted lovers might take to recover financially from the damage to reputation and emotional health caused by broken engagements. The vast majority of breach of promise suits were women suing men, although the reverse did sometimes occur. Unlike most matters of the law in that era, the lady had a clear advantage. Examination of court documentation from this era shows that the success rate of these suits, for women, was nearly 100%.
Breach of promise (BOP) initially was a matter for the ecclesiastical courts. It was also, initially, something done by persons of the lower classes who may not have had dowries and solicitor-drawn contracts to support them. However, by the mid-18th century, the ecclesiastical courts, wishing to concentrate on preventing irregular marriages, turned the issue over to the civil courts. This was also roughly the time when marriages of the heart, rather than marriages by parental arrangement, became much more common; in short, the setting was ripe for a surge in broken hearts and damage-seeking. At the height of its ‘popularity’, which was the Victorian era, there were as many as a hundred BOP cases annually in England, and America was not far behind.
BOP was a more embarrassing circumstance for gentlemen than for ladies. It suggested the gentleman lacked honor and was a humiliation to not only him but his entire family. Furthermore, news of these cases was of profound interest in the newspapers, which reported on these scandals with glee. Men could lose a substantial amount of money in these circumstances—there was no standard, and how much was awarded to the bride was based almost completely on the wealth of the defendant. Cases where any sort of seduction was implied—real or imagined—upped the award substantially!
Most gentlemen were willing to do a great deal to avoid landing in the courts, but it was also less than ideal for the ladies. Despite the law favoring women in these circumstances, most women believed such actions to be ill-bred, low-class, unnatural, and perverse. The only way a man could prove that jilting a woman was acceptable was to prove that he was disappointed in the lady’s character. What resulted was something that resembled modern-day politics, with each side doing absolutely everything it could to discredit the other; it was embarrassing for them and deliciously scandalous for anyone reading about it.
At first, a successful BOP suit at first required some sort of firm documentation that marriage was promised—settlement articles or some contract between the parties. In later years, however, the prospective bride only needed proof that she had believed herself engaged. This usually was nothing more than the testimony of friends or family who would earnestly avow that the gentleman had made some sort of promise, either by word or by deed, that indicated that he intended to marry her. Neither the defendant nor the plaintiff would be allowed to testify as it was believed this would require people to perjure themselves, so the judge would be reliant on the testimony of family and friends.
In the case of Miss Elkington, for example, it was soon discovered that she had deceived Dr Copeland into believing she had some fortune for them to live on. Her case was also complicated by reports in the newspapers that her sister, Miss Amelia Harrison, had been sent to London the year prior—and had also been awarded damages by a prospective bridegroom. It was suspected that their attorney father had set up the ladies to earn some dowry for themselves by preying on the hapless.
There was, of course, a clear process in forming a breach of promise suit against your lover.
The plaintiff had to first prove two things—that a promise had been made or implied by her suitor that they would marry. With that established, she then needed proof of abandonment—if the suitor said so in writing, if he disappeared, or if he became engaged to someone else.
An arbitrator might be used before the matter went further to demand compensation for the plaintiff without things going any further. This person would make arrangements for acceptable damages, which would then be accepted by the plaintiff and her guardian
If arbitration failed, solicitors would prepare the matter for court. The defendant would be served with a notice of the plaintiff’s intention to sue.
Solicitors would then attempt to reach an out-of-court settlement. This was preferred by all parties and likely where things ended.
A series of communications would be set forth. The plaintiff would need to show that she believed the gentleman would marry her and that she had every intention of marrying him, and the gentleman needed to either disprove that or give a valid reason for not marrying her
If those negotiations failed, then barristers got involved, and it went to court as a breach of promise suit.
In A Folly of Youth, by virtue of too much curiosity, Darcy’s chivalry, and some quick thinking by Mr Gardiner’s solicitors, Darcy and Elizabeth end up embroiled against one another in an almost-BOP type of entanglement. Darcy, not unaware of the trends of the day, would have—and did!—fight vigorously against the scheme, but Elizabeth was also innocent in the matter. Things break down right around step 2 when our pal Mr Bennet refuses to be arbitrated! D&E do everything they can to avoid the breach—eventually falling in love in the process!
Bates, Denise. Breach of Promise to Marry: A History of How Jilted Brides Settled Scores. Wharncliffe Books; Illustrated edition (January 15, 2014)
Frost, Ginger Suzanne. Promises Broken: Breach of Promise of Marriage in England and Wales 1753-1970. Rice University PhD defense, 1991
A Receipt for a Courtship Date Created/Published: London : published by Laurie & Whittle, 1805. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540. No known restrictions on publication.
A New Court of Queen's Bench, As it Ought to Be -- Or -- The Ladies Trying a Contemptible Scoundrel for a "Breach of Promise", an 1849 caricature by George Cruikshank for the 1850 Comic Almanack. Public domain.
Trial By Jury, Chaos in the Courtroom. David Henry Frisson. Public domain.